Having an impact, or making a difference? Social and Economic Impact

Last week I went along to an event organised by The Audience Agency and ISAN discussing the economic and social impacts of the outdoor arts. It prompted my thinking about the practical issues facing arts and culture organisations in this context.

In terms of wider background, Eleanora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett have written about the history of claims to social impact of the arts. Their review stretches from Greek philosophy to the present day, and comes up with eight ‘types’ of impact that the arts can have on society. Interestingly, none of them are about a return on financial investment. This economic approach is something that has – more or less – developed alongside the market-led creative industries policies of recent years, and this is a theme that is guiding my PhD literature review. However, at a slightly more practical level, here are my thoughts:

Social impact is integrated, not additional
There are different approaches to defining and measuring impacts that are, generally speaking, context-specific. Within a social return on investment approach, for example, it’s important for stakeholders to be engaged in order to set and understand impact measures. I’d argue that stakeholder engagement is pretty important in any ‘direction setting’ exercise, but I’m well aware that this kind of strategic planning is not a luxury that smaller arts organisations can always afford.

One size can’t fit all
The context-specific issue above could be particular to an organisation or even a project. Impacts are often not really generalisable across broader work*: for example, research tells us that the average spend of visitors of outdoor arts in the West Midlands is around £26, which is pretty different to the current national average of £51. So it’s necessary to understand the background to the impact headlines you are quoting or reading. This takes time, which is often in short supply for arts organisations, as well as potential funders and stakeholders. See below.

It takes time and money
Any impact approach is resource intensive to plan, implement and measure, which can be particularly problematic for a small arts organisation. This got me thinking about collaborative approaches across an area or an art form – is this something that is being widely explored? One example is the Arts Council England ‘Creative People and Places’ funding stream, which aims to encourage partnership working and to “demonstrate the power of the arts to enrich the lives of individuals and make positive changes in communities”. Are there examples of this approach that have ‘self-generated’ without the external funding lever? And what are the options if you can’t find collaborators or external funding?

What else?
Social enterprise and third sector has a longer history of these approaches – are there implications for cultural sector business models? What’s the practical benefit of measuring social impact, as a small arts organisation? Is there a compelling reason, aside from funding applications? If you’re interested in the background to, and academic discussion of, social impact, I’ll be writing a second post on the literature and signposting to some – hopefully – useful background information.

*I’m aware that this is an ironic generalisation.